Doodles at a Distance: Journaling, Instagram, and Self Worth in the Time of COVID-19

Even though I woke up late I still had a nice day.
June 8, 2020

Anyone who has attempted to hop on the bullet journal train knows very well that this aesthetic practice, although touted as calming and reflective, could not be further from a simple, tranquil habit. Every year, hyped by my recurring New Year’s resolution of achieving both greater organizational skills and a greater appreciation for daily accomplishments, I blow dozens of dollars on cute Japanese stationery– planners, pens, washi tape, etc.– and commit to a strict schedule of bullet journaling. However, the pressure to perform overwhelms me and I end up spending hours on each page, exhausting myself attempting to make fine art out of the monotony that is my life. For the past three years I’ve managed to get halfway through February before tabling the calligraphy pens and using my journal as the base upon which monographs are stacked. The point here is that “routine” has never been a word I’ve taken to heart.

Or at least that’s what I thought back in a time when routine wasn’t a laughable concept. In mid-March, as the world was closing down around us and the impact of COVID-19 forced us into our homes for an undetermined future, any semblance of structure and routine disappeared from society. As someone who has spent a lifetime cultivating solitary, indoor hobbies, I at first felt well equipped to transition to a distant, digital lifestyle at the onset of social distancing. However, I grossly underestimated how even my day, punctuated with video games, YouTube wormholes, and the daily dash to classes, constituted a skeleton of a schedule.  Although mandatory self-isolation seemed like a dream come true at first, I quickly fell victim to the liquefaction of time brought upon by the stay at home order.

Two weeks of waking up at 11am and loafing around for the better part of the afternoon quickly elapsed as the world outside crept ever more upward towards medical and economic calamity. After expressing frustration with my lack of productivity and my rapidly deteriorating sense of self-worth with my therapist (via Zoom), she suggested that I try to find solace in one of my mortal enemies: the journal. Although hesitant, as the inability to complete daily entries had only added to my anxieties in the past, she intrigued me by pointing out that jotting down my daily accomplishments, however mundane, would not only be benefit my mental health, but would also document how life operated during this bizarre period in history. And who was I to deprive the world of more documentation of history?

Before putting Apple Pencil to iPad, however, I laid down three rules for myself:

  1. Draw only in monochrome, with the exception of my dyed hair (another sign of the times).
  2. Spend no more than 45 minutes on each entry.
  3. Don't hate yourself if you miss a day, or three.

I’ve always skirted around the idea of being a serious artist, never having been able to fully embrace it as an identity marker. The decision to publish my 45-minute doodles on Instagram, complete with the chicken scratch rough sketch preserved in the under layers, goes completely contrary to my detail oriented persona, producing another useful side effect: freedom from perfection. Using a public platform like Instagram has also forced me to keep my channels of discourse open - which although frightening at first as I am self-conscious to the point of reclusiveness - has been nothing short of comforting. It’s my new way of thinking about shared experiences.

The process of creating each entry goes something like this. I pick out the moment from my day that I’m most interested in drawing and think that I can render with the least amount of difficulty. This light, quick sketch then gets outlined and shaded. Finally, instead of using the caption feature to record my daily agenda, I decided to replicate the journal entry aesthetic and hand write it, and that has proven to be the most cathartic element of the process. I’ll admit that waking up to the two dozen likes and the occasional comment is quite the mood booster as well.

Some days my schedule is chock full of social distancing hallmarks, such as feeding my sourdough starter– which I co-parent with my podmate– or making daring dashes to Trader Joe’s, or pouring hours into remodeling my island on Animal Crossing, the universe’s gift to gamers during our most fruitful time. Most days the sketch is the most productive thing I do besides washing my face. What this experiment of artistic stamina and discipline has taught me is that my day, although limited in scope and confined to the lonesomeness of my apartment, is never a day wasted. Attending Zoom class after Zoom therapy after Zoom meeting is an accomplishment. Going to the grocery store and crafting menus featuring foods I never would think of cooking - and actually thinking about what I’m feeding myself  - is character development. Making cake for my landlady for no good reason is a good reason. Realizing that my art is enough, and my daily accomplishments are enough, and that social distancing doesn’t mean social disengaging is what I’ve gained amidst this time of so much loss.

I am unsure of how long I will continue to doodle these daily logs, especially since barreling towards my final paper deadlines has monopolized all of my productive juices. Whether I put my pencil down tomorrow, two months from now, or if I already did three days ago when I made my latest post remains to be seen, but the collection I’ve left behind will endure, protected by my iPad storage and the immortality of the internet. How others have chosen to record this time continues to inspire me, from snarky cross stitches to moving oral histories, and I have no doubt that this time with ourselves will produce a telling archive of modern history. Mine is only a small contribution, but even that is quite an accomplishment.

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Brought Cesealia (my seal plushie) to zoom class because everyone was showing of their pets and I felt left out.

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I could not possibly imagine where I would be without the love and support of my pod!

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No one is wondering this but those are daikon (Japanese radish), not giant white carrots.

Rae Kuruhara is a first-year Public Humanities MA student and Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative Fellow from Hilo, Hawaiʻi. Aside from reading manga and playing video games, Rae enjoys baking, Facetime their grandma, and endlessly rewatching Bon Appetit Test Kitchen videos on Youtube.